Family life with two small kids can keep a man pretty busy. And yet I am only home with the kids late at night and on weekends. My wife envies me for being able to go to work and spend time on doing other things than just keeping up with housework and attending to the needs of an eight-month-old who has learned to crawl around and get in trouble and her 3-year-old brother who has entered a phase of throwing tantrums whenever his carefully parked Tomika cars are budged from their precise positions.
So, it is really difficult for me to ask my wife if she minds me taking a Sunday for a tramp in the mountains.
I have good reasons for going. Any outing is work-related. Photographing Japanese mountain and nature may eventually help to bring a little extra cash home, though so far it all goes to pay off the previous outings and photo-related expenses. I might capture something that could end up in a calendar or magazine through my stock agency. I might have something to submit to Yama-to-Keikoku’s calendars that could possibly be selected (though nothing of mine has been selected in the last three years). And this time there was a chance that NHK Niigata might have been there. Alas, as I expected, NHK were out of the picture, so to speak. Two weeks ago, the guy who contacted me originally sent me a message saying that his superiors felt they had sufficient footage from the local mountains of Niigata and didn’t need to shoot a foreigner photographing the leaves in Nagano. However, I had no intention of letting go of such a connection and I thought that even if the TV folks were not going to be there, I should still go and send a few digital snaps to my contact, just to keep the flame of interest alive. He is after all, a fellow mountaineer and “camera man”.
A working father’s schedule:
19:40 – Finish work, check weather and maps, and head home
21:20 – Arrive home. Take son to the shower, wash together. Look after daughter while wife bathes, then bring daughter to wife for bath. Brush son’s teeth and own; receive daughter from bath; dry her and begin dressing her until wife comes to take over.
23:00 – Family goes to bed. Daughter is wide awake. Son has nose issues and requests tissues which he then refuses to use.
00:00 – Everyone goes to sleep.
01:40 – Wake up and put bags in car. Drive in rain to Tateshina, Nagano with Judas Priest on the CD player. (Needed something loud and familiar to keep me awake and knowing the lyrics since elementary school means I can sing along, though singing along to Judas Priest is not easy. Good thing I drive alone!)
06:00 – Arrive at parking lot (rain has stopped). Sleep in car for 40 minutes. Eat breakfast.
07:10 – Begin hike.
It’s cloudy and a fog covers everything. It’s windy and the trees are sometimes shaken roughly and showers of raindrop collections fall on the muddy trail that is a chain of puddles more than a hiking trail. But it’s not raining and I am in a silent forest inhaling the fresh cool and damp air. It’s almost like home (west coast British Columbia). The trees are sporting yellows and orangey browns but the colours are lacking vibrancy. Still, it’s the most beautiful setting I have been in since May – the only other time this year I dared insist on going out on my own for a day. The trail takes an upward turn and large lava rocks – mostly worn smooth but also scratched by hiking stalks – mix with roots to provide steps up the mountainside. I am climbing Tateshinayama, a Hyakumeizan and my 31st. Not that I am counting. Well, I am counting but only just to keep track. Today’s outing includes a Hyakumeizan but only as part of a circuit that will take me through forests, along crystal clear streams, and to some small lakes (large ponds) that have formed in the congested throats of long ago silenced volcanic craters. The main purpose is to shoot autumn scenery. And get some fresh air and exercise!
There are five other people on the trail and I pass them shortly after beginning the ascension part of the route. I am not racing up by any means and my pace seems plodding and sluggish. But at my pace I am comfortable and don’t require any rest except to take off my jacket as I am now sweating inside and more wet than I would be without it. The cloud cover persists until around 9:00 when a patch of blue opens for a minute or so. I am putting all my trust in the weather report that called for rain until morning and clear skies later in the day. So far it looks like the forecast will come true.
At last the trees give way to a jumble of volcanic boulders and the summit is very near. At around ten o’clock I stand near the summit marker – 2,530 metres in elevation – with a blasting wind that attempts to knock me over and clouds furiously washing over the summit. Visibility is down to less than 50 metres and I can just barely see a raised rim of rock curving off to the right and a lower flat area, which suggest that this is indeed a crater summit of a volcano. A view opens up briefly to the northwest and I catch a glimpse of the valley below near Shirakaba Lake. More clearings come with increasing frequency. I walk along the crater rim to a concrete cylinder standing upright with a circular metal plaque identifying the mountains visible from the summit. The clouds part and I recognize a distant spire of rock as Yarigatake. The clouds are coming from the northwest but views below and to the southeast and east are nearly constant now. I can see Asamayama and Myogisan easily and soon Ryogamisan becomes distinct as well. Particularly interesting is to note that the base of Asamayama, where Karuizawa in located, is nearly as high in elevation as Myogisan. Basically, Myogi sits near the end of a volcanic plateau though independent of it. The plateau swoops down, drops, and Myogi rises up like a rotten stump. Then beyond, the cliffs drop hundreds of metres down and the slope of the ancient volcano of Myogi slides down to the even lower valley of the Toné River below. What one can perceive from the top of a mountain!
The wind remains cold but the summit is nearly clear by the time I head down the other side around 11:00. Not far below is a hut which is near a mountain road and many people are coming up in the warmth of the sun and quiet of the leeward side of the wind. Two families have small children with them wearing only sweatshirts. I warn them of the strong cold wind at the summit. Past the lodge I make my way through more forest and along the soggy trail. I begin descending but more than I think I should. Did I miss a turnoff? I am heading north. If I am where I think I am I should be heading east. I check the guidebook just as two people come climbing up. I ask where I am and they point out my location. Oh, foolish me. I somehow thought I had passed one hut too many. I am on the right track.
What a surprise to see the next hut right beside a road with a full parking lot and a tour bus! I could have driven up here! But that wouldn’t have been as rewarding. It’s 12:40. From here I figure I should reach the Twin Ponds (Futago Ike) by 1:30.
Looking at Tateshinayama from Futagoyama
I do the easy climb up Futagoyama and then descend into a larch forest. Orange needles fall gently like golden slivers of snow until a gust blows a wild swirl of needles through the air and lodges one in my mouth. And then through the trees I see the shimmer of sunlight on water. At last I reach the two small lakes (or big ponds). The water is beautifully clear though the shore is choked with larch needles and mountain ash leaves where the wind has blown them. It’s two o’clock when I sit down for lunch and then begin hastily trying to find compositions for my 4×5. Without looking at my watch I know instinctively when it’s time to pack up in a hurry. At three o’clock I have to hit the trail again. I have two hours before sunset and the route back promises to be as long according to the book. But I know I will want to stop for photos again.
I leave the open air of the lakes for a thick green mossy forest, then come to another small lake – Turtle Shell Pond. From here I climb up and then descend through more larch trees while having a view of Tateshinayama filling the valley ahead of me. Down in the valley the trail is seriously flooded. I have to walk with my legs apart in order to step on the dry ground below the bamboo grass. In some places, the larch needles make a flat mat, completely smooth, alerting me to a hidden puddle. A couple of times I splash in the water but my boots keep out most of the water. Leaving open valley and meadows for forest again the trail becomes dry. A stream that is so clear it looks like thick glass pools below mossy boulders and roots. Through the trees the light is becoming golden. The return hike goes smoothly and at one point I catch a glimpse of the higher peaks of Yatsugatake in the evening light. I also see a fox languidly stepping over boulders by the stream in a ravine below the trail.
It is just five o’clock when I reach the road and start the short walk back up to where I parked. At a pullout I enjoy a twilight view of the peaks of Yatsugatake, the Minami Alps, and the Chuo Alps. It has been sometime since I last set my eyes on those lofty peaks.
10:00 – Arrive at summit of Tateshinayama.
11:00 – Begin trek down the east side of the mountain.
13:40 – Reach Futago Ike and do some snapping with the digital and reconnoitering. Eat lunch and do some “serious” shooting.
15:00 – Begin heading back to car.
17:00 – Reach the road. And walk back to car. Change pants and footwear. Eat last of food.
18:00 – Start engine and begin drive back.
21:30 – Arrive back home in Saitama
22:00 – Take son to shower, wash together. Look after daughter while wife bathes, then bring daughter to wife for bath. Brush son’s teeth and own; receive daughter from bath; dry her and begin dressing her until wife comes out to take over.
23:00 – Family goes to bed.